The US has been carrying out air-strikes in Iraq since August 8 for the first time since officially ending their occupation at the end of 2011.
The strikes were aimed at the extremely violent multinational terrorist group previously known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but which recently renamed itself Islamic State (IS) to reflect its global ambitions.
The group originally emerged in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But international gangs of Salafi Sunni Muslim fundamentalists have been a feature of world politics since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980s.
To fight the Soviet occupation, the CIA, working with Saudi Arabia, recruited a Salafi force from all over the world. But when Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the US cut them loose.
International groups of Salafi fighters began appearing wherever there was large-scale armed conflict in the Islamic world. The mainly Saudi leaders of the network ― named “the Base”, or al-Qaeda ― engaged in escalating attacks against their former sponsor, the US, culminating in the 9-11 attacks.
The current conflict is the latest phase in recurring pattern of “blow back” from military adventures and pretexts for war that have become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The US-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussain's secular dictatorship in Iraq was justified with fabricated evidence of Hussain's supposed alliance with al-Qaeda. Ironically, it was the invasion based on this lie that brought Salafi fundamentalist terrorist groups to the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation.
To undermine the prospects of a united resistance to its occupation, US forces fomented a sectarian civil war between Iraq's Shia majority and Sunni minority.
By 2006, the US had divided Baghdad into Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods, building a wall between the two. The US used the competing sectarian Iraqi groups to create a US-controlled balance of power.
By 2011, this had stabilised enough for US President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, which, however, left behind a residual force of US military advisers and “Security Contractors” (mercenaries).
It also left behind an extremely fragile Iraqi state. Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north, retained a high degree of autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) ― an uneasy alliance of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
In the rest of the country, sectarian militias ruled. The US favoured Shia militias over Sunni ones. Among the Shia groups, the US favoured those aligned with Nuri al-Maliki, who the occupiers installed as prime minister.
Shia forces more inclined to oppose the occupation, such as those of Moqtada al-Sadr, were sidelined.
Paradoxically, the regime installed by the US in Iraq had good relations with Iran, the US's main regional rival.
The force now known as IS originated as the al-Qaeda franchise in occupied Iraq. After the US withdrawal, it turned its attention to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Syria's civil war began as a mass uprising against the secular dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The brutal military response of the Assad regime helped turn it into a civil war, as did covert Western support to armed opposition groups.
This Western support was mainly indirect, originating in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich, Western-backed Sunni theocratic monarchies, particularly Qatar. It was facilitated by the Turkish regime and right-wing Sunni militias in Lebanon.
Diplomatically, the West supported the Syrian National Council (SNC), a government-in-exile with no influence inside the country. Officially the military forces of the SNC are the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed by military officers defecting from Assad and local militias.
In reality, however, the FSA was never more than an uncoordinated network of independent brigades whose commanders often acted as warlords.
A convergence of interests led to the conflict developing a religious sectarian dimension. Assad, along with much of the military elite, comes from the Alawite minority. He has presented his regime as the protector of religious minorities against Sunni fundamentalism and communalism.
Despite this, in the early stages of the uprising, the regime concentrated its repression on leftist and secular opponents. The West’s regional proxies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf kingdoms, Turkey and the right-wing militias in Lebanon, all favoured Sunni communalist and fundamentalist groups.
FSA brigades increasingly took a Sunni Islamist character and more hard-line groups emerged. IS broke with al-Qaeda when the latter supported its local Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, against an attempted IS takeover.
Last year, IS emerged as the strongest opposition group in Syria outside Syrian Kurdistan (Rojova). This alarmed the West, because the group’s anti-Western rhetoric was matched by a history of having fought against Western forces in Iraq and because of its unwillingness to submit to any outside sponsor, even al-Qaeda.
The West encouraged the FSA brigades and those of the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front to unite against IS. Many brigades, however, defected to IS, partly because of its success and also in response to perceived Western betrayal.
Most of the predominantly-Chechen foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, both veteran Jihadis and new recruits, joined Islamist groups and most are now in IS.
IS also gained a reputation for extreme violence, even by the standards of other participants in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts.
Partly due to their uncompromising Salafi ideology, it also reflected the brutalising effects of the conflicts. This ultra-violence was visible when IS swept back into Iraq in June, releasing videos of the mass execution of prisoners of war.
This invasion also revealed the weakness of the Iraqi state. The Maliki regime was trying to hang on to power after elections and as the IS forces swept south, they were welcomed by many in Sunni Arab communities alienated by the regime's violent Shia sectarianism.
In early August, the IS turned northward toward Kurdistan. It threatened genocide against Christian and Yazidi religious minorities. The Yazadi are a small, mainly Kurdish, community who inhabit the area around Mount Sinjar.
After forces of the pro-Western KRG fled, the population fled up the mountain where they were besieged and lacked food and water. Hundreds were killed, including by being buried alive. Hundreds of women were abducted as sex slaves and children were taken for forced conversion.
However, most Yazidi were rescued by anti-Western Kurdish forces. These included the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been struggling for freedom of Kurds in Turkey for decades, and the Syrian Kurdistan-based Peoples Protection Forces (YPG).
Lead by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which shares the PKK’s left-wing ideology, these forces have held Rojova since June 2012. They have fought off attacks from the Assad regime, the Nusra Front, IS and even the FSA, with whom they have an uneasy alliance.
Rojova, under these forces, has undergone a revolutionary transformation. The YPG is a unified force, but local democratic control is strengthened by community-controlled militias at its base.
The high proportion of women in the YPG reflects the social gains made by women.
In Iraq, US bombing began to block the IS advance on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. From August 8, the US Air Force has carried out strikes in support of the KRG.
Sinjar was recaptured from IS by the YPG, HPG and local Yazidi and Christian militias. But the strategically important Mosul Dam was recaptured by KRG forces backed by US airstrikes.
The KRG has also reluctantly accepted HPG help in defending Erbil.
On August 15, the US finally prevailed on Baghdad’s political elite to replace Maliki with another pro-Iranian politician, Haider Al-Abadi.
The violence of IS, its penchant for filming its atrocities, and the appearance of Western fighters in its grisly propaganda, has led Western powers to bring in a new round of anti-democratic “anti-terror” laws.
In Australia, proposed laws mean anyone returning from selected countries will have to prove that they are not a terrorist.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s campaign for these laws, with his absurd “Team Australia” rhetoric, was given a boost on August 11 when Australian Khaled Sharrouf tweeted an image of his infant son cradling the severed head of an Assad regime soldier. The caption read: “That’s my boy.”
Sharrouf was jailed under anti-terror laws in 2007. He was involved with organised crime after his release, before he fled with his family on a borrowed passport to Syria and joined IS.
On August 20, IS responded to the air-strikes with the gruesome filmed decapitation of US journalist James Foley by a British-accented executioner.
Foley was taken hostage by a rebel brigade in Syria in November 2012. He became a prisoner of IS when his original captors either sold him or joined IS.
The US responded to the atrocity by increasing the tempo of air-strikes.
A paradox of IS violence being used to promote new “anti-terror” laws is that, in the US, the EU and Australia, the PKK, a democratic group fighting IS, is listed as “terrorist”.
Another paradox is the IS's enemies also include the West’s rival Iran and the Assad regime.
On August 23, the ABC reported that British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had rebuffed suggestions from retired British political and military leaders for an alliance with Assad.
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